Jess Walter's new novel combines a pair of love stories, wicked comedy, Hollywood legend, and a poorly named hotel.
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Also cropping up now and again is Alvis Bender, a writer who visits the Hotel Adequate View every year to work on his novel about his experiences in the Second World War. Over the years, he has come up with only one chapter, but it too makes it into this book. And then there is Pat, a disappointed singer-songwriter and boozer. He gets us to London and Edinburgh. Finally – though not last – there's Richard Burton, bottle in hand, fresh off the set of "Cleopatra," which is being filmed, disastrously, in Rome.Skip to next paragraph
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It was Deane, we learn from an (until now) unpublished chapter in his memoir, who saved the fast-sinking production of "Cleopatra" from going completely under in 1962. The previous two years had brought calamity of every description, and the picture was becoming more of a dud. Now it was hit by what would seem to be the fatal blow: the searing-hot, on-location love affair/brawl of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. She is the woman, after all, who had stolen Eddie Fisher from America's sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. Now Liz has dumped the soppy crooner for the notorious Welsh actor, philanderer, and rum pot. The affair, with its tantrums and exhibitions of lust, was, writes Deane in his memoir, "a car wreck. A ten-car pileup." It was becoming impossible to keep the presumably disapproving public from learning about it. Deane, hired as a fixer, comes up with the solution and discovers his genius: "I saw the whole world in a flash and I recognized it at once," he reports: Dick wanted Liz. Liz wanted Dick. And we want car wrecks. We say we don't. But we love them. To look is to love. A thousand people drive past the statue of David. Two hundred look. A thousand people drive past a car wreck. A thousand look.
It is impossible to say much about the plot without ruining its surprises or revealing Deane's acts of inspired deception and treachery. But I can say that Walter's sardonic wit and mischievous intelligence shine out to the very end. It is gloriously and darkly funny that this menagerie of characters and disparate elements come together as a story because of the machinations of that "lacquered elf," Michael Deane. Brazen master of spin, he is a genius for whom pandering to debased appetites is a form of largess, for whom lies and perfidy are creative acts. He is the demiurge of this story and of our time.